By Valdir Steuernagel
Lausane World Pulse
This is an historical time in the Evangelical Church in Latin America. Never before have so many churches awakened to the universal nature of the missionary task, with such willingness to make their contribution.
Let us rejoice because of this new trend, but let us rejoice with caution. Never before have there been so many people willing to be sent out, so many missionary training schools available, and so many resources raised to sustain those sent. Still, we must proceed with caution and invest in a missions posture capable of balancing: quality, urgent sending with effective training; a sound financial base with the resources actually necessary; and a biblical and contextual understanding of the meaning of the task and of frontiers in mission.
Indeed, we have already learned from former and current missiological reflection that the concepts of nearby and far away, in biblical terms, are more of a salvation nature than of a geographic nature. In other words, the universality of the mission is verified in the keen perception of the need for saving our household and the next door neighbor, as well as those whose language and culture are radically different than our own. We must seek a balance between missionary action “there and here.”
Clearly, the missionary awakening of the Church in Latin America comes at a time of significant church growth.
Clearly, the missionary awakening of the Church in Latin America comes at a time of significant church growth. The church that grows is very often the same church that is awakening to its missionary responsibility and sending workers to the mission field. But these churches should never forget that their own families and children are also missionary fields. That is, the task of evangelism has to be faced anew by every generation. Indeed, we face the challenges of continuity and consistency in many of our churches.
So we ask our brothers and sisters who have preceded us in the missionary awakening to help us sort out this dimension of evangelism. From the vantage point of the Third World, we face with great dismay the process of secularization, and to a certain extent, the faith and church crises in countries that once experienced deep revivals and were actively engaged in cross-cultural missions. Is it possible to avert or diminish this kind of “historic determinism” that seems always to go from “hot” to “lukewarm” and/or “cold”?
Further, it is important to point out that reflection on frontiers has merited two distinct observations. One has to do with today’s concept of communication and distance. The world has become smaller and what is done and/or produced in one place can be transmitted or makes its way to other places. Opportunities for evangelism (and missionary responsibility!) are multiplied.
The other observation has to do with the fact that mission frontiers are not only geographical, but social and economic as well. The gospel we preach and the church we try to establish should change toward justice and toward a collective lifestyle which embraces human dignity and environmental stewardship.
Healthy Participation with Mutual Enrichment
Today, as never before, we can put into practice the slogan that mission is a task of six continents for six continents. But this practice is not yet obvious. Our mission history in Latin America is one of dependence and we need to recognize that getting rid of such dependency might be easier than repeating the model.
The gospel we preach and the church we try to establish should change toward justice and toward a collective lifestyle which embraces human dignity and environmental stewardship.
Dependency does harm. To some, it gives a dangerous sense of control; however, to many more it generates a false sense of immobilizing invalidity. The challenge before us is to build a reciprocal partnership; this will be best seen when Latino missionaries work not only with Latino immigrants in Europe and North America, but with mainstream mission efforts and churches as well. The practice of partnership could help us to become a Church that will make a difference indeed.
Some Things Need to Be Learned
The missionary movement that has emerged in Latin America calls for a growing humility that is willing to learn from history. Youthful euphoria will only hinder this learning process. Such an attitude will cause us to think that our fathers and mothers “missed the point”—that we know better and are eager to send, go, and do better.
Yesterday’s experiences must be studied more, and the learning of our predecessors must be assimilated by today’s generation. There is no need (and we cannot afford) to repeat the same errors in each generation. Of the many areas in which we have accumulated experience that can enrich and challenge today’s Latin American missionary practice, I point to just four.
1. The cultural issue. We cannot think that just because we belong to a kind of Third World culture, our identification with other cultures in the missionary field will be automatic. The Brazilian culture, for example, is just as imperialistic toward other cultures as the United States is toward the Brazilian culture. Moreover, culture is so much a part of the people that we automatically tend to consider other peoples´ cultures as distant. There are many lessons learned and much accumulated reflection having to do with the relationship between gospel and culture which the young missionary movement of Latin America needs to review.
2. Missionary training. There is a latent risk of considering intense, longer training processes as the concern of mission theorists. After all, isn’t it more important to roll up our sleeves and go to work? Maybe not. We are not advocating training programs that simply copy the respective models designed abroad. What we are advocating is that in order to participate in such a serious, intense, emotionally-involved missionary mandate, a formation process is fundamental. The price paid for haste is too high to justify running the risk of not designing and implementing adequate training programs.
3. Perseverance on the field. Perseverance and persistence cannot be learned in a day; however, they are indispensable in missionary work. There are strong traits in many of our cultures which point to a personal and collective behavior toward rapid response, emotionally-determined decisions and support, and easy promise of engagement. One of the key issues is how one can learn to function in and internalize other patterns, such as persistence and the ability to cope with solitude and failure. These have proven to be fundamental in medium and long-term missionary work.
4. Faithfulness in support. As mentioned above, in missionary terms, our history is one of dependence, and hence, reception. The fact that mission also implies giving is a concept which most of our churches are still learning. They must go through a complete learning process that will lead them to understand that missions is serious business, involving financial faithfulness to those we send out in Jesus’ name. Learning to give in a systematic and disciplined manner over a long period of time is a challenge we cannot escape if we want to face up to God’s missionary moment.
There Are Things We Must Overcome
We come back to partnership, stressing that overcoming dependence does not naturally and clearly lead to mature autonomy. The phase subsequent to dependence often appears to be a copy of some other model. That is, the Latin American missionary experience tends to copy the emphases and models of the missionary enterprise they have seen and have been familiar with as recipients.
Learning to give in a systematic and disciplined manner over a long period of time is a challenge we cannot escape if we want to face up to God’s missionary moment.
After all, it is precisely those experiences which have been successful that seem the best and most appropriate to emulate. Here, however, I would point out three areas where a copy should not be the approach.
1. Seeking unity and overcoming division. The Latin American experience with North American missions was sharply marked first by the conflict between fundamentalism and modernism, which characterized Christianity in the US during most of the twentieth century, and later by a Cold War mentality. The theological and ideological conflict of the North caused much unnecessary division in the South, since our churches have very little to do with the European and North American theological conflicts.
Further, exported to our southern hemisphere was an ecclesiastical practice largely determined by a free-market mentality—also a typical North American experience. The seed of this ecclesiastical practice fell on a soil which cultivates a culture that has deep marks of emotional, charismatic, and authoritarian flavor. Merging these two worlds produced an extremely lacerated ecclesiastical picture. The ethical and communal principle of partnership and of community was usually overrun, and the geography of church founding, in many instances, corresponded to the history of personality conflicts and the establishment of personal or family feuds duly placed under the guise of revelation.
This lacerated ecclesiastical experience in Latin America is usually exported as the most natural way to operate. Hence, we must move from divisionism to an ecclesiastical experience that will respect the church that is already in place, seek to work in concert, and sometimes become integrated, with a posture of submission, into works already underway. And we must not forget that, biblically speaking, the testimony constituted by unity is itself a positive factor of evangelism.
2. The expensive missionary model of the North does not serve us, and the philosophy of pragmatism has deep, worldly roots. The introduction of belief and practice of the free market in the ecclesiastical realm brought with it still another issue—the establishment of a strategy aimed at growth and success. This strategy was established on the basis of pragmatism: you choose an area and/or challenge, you establish a goal and an achievement timetable, and you seek to fulfill both.
The problem is that not only does our culture not operate that way, but this philosophy runs counter to the biblical pattern and mandate which says that the person is more important than the goal. In the biblical pattern strategy is constantly interrupted and held in check by the blind man who cries out alongside the road to Jericho. Moreover, these strategies, their design, implementation, follow-up, and evaluation are very costly. The North American missionary enterprise has become very expensive, and for the paradigms and possibilities of the Third World, impossible. Following this reasoning, if we simply copy the typical model of the missionary agency developed in the US, we will fall into a bottomless pit. This approach will not work since that model presupposes and requires heavy financial resources, both to be sent to the field and to pay for the administration of the missionary machinery.
The North American missionary enterprise has become very expensive, and for the paradigms and possibilities of the Third World, impossible.
Latin America must develop other models of missionary obedience that consistently reflect its reality of the poor and, hence, hopefully emulate the missionary model of the hiker from Galilee with the authority of a servant.
3. Caution with respect to bureaucracy and sophistication. We know from recent missions history that time after time the “mission” has been vested with the most advanced Western technology in the whole area, and often, in the whole country. This has caused problems concerning image and resources. Missions arising from the South do not have this technology and traditionally do not depend on it nearly as much. This fact can be of enormous help in many of the areas where the people and their respective communities live in extreme poverty. It could also help us to put into practice incarnation as one of the basic pillars of evangelical missions.
The Evangelical Church in Latin America, and the Third World in general, is experiencing a unique missionary awakening in Protestant history. The poor are engaged in missionary activity and are investing their potential, talents, and resources in fulfilling the universal missionary call of the Church.
With the growing involvement of Third World missionaries of different races and cultures, the geography and color of missions has been changing for quite some time. This trend causes us to rejoice. And yet together we must continue cautiously into the future as we explore the growing needs for effective training, sound financial support, and a biblical and contextual understanding of mission.
(This article was originally published by MARC Publications as "From Latin America: An Open Letter to the North American Mission Community" in the Mission Handbook, 15th edition, 1993. Used with permission.)
Dr. Valdir Steuernagel is international vice-president of Christian Commitments for World Vision. He is an internationally-recognized theologian and serves as a global minister-at-large and author. He is Brazilian.